• Meet Nicole Williams, deputy super for academic services at SLPS

    St. Louis American

    Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2012 12:07 am

    Nicole Williams, deputy superintendent for academic services for the St. Louis Public Schools, grew up on dairy farm on 500 acres of land in upstate New York.


    Every morning at 4 a.m., she started her farm chores and worked until the school bus came to take her to the area’s only K-12 school.


    “I wasn’t good at any of the things that I did,” she said of her farm duties. “I couldn’t gather eggs without cracking them. I couldn’t pick a bucket of blueberries without spilling it over.”


    At night with a flashlight, Williams would read mysteries novels, such as the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series. Reading gave her a glimpse of life outside the farm and it allowed her to see the world in a different way.


    As the person in charge of academic instruction for the city district, Williams sees reading as having an equal role for students in urban areas. And as a former administrator for underserved school districts in New York City, Boston and Los Angeles, she said she applies the same kind of communal philosophy she learned in her childhood farming community to her mission in advancing student achievement in urban schools.


    “It takes intellectual engagement at every level – from our parents, students, teachers and community partners – to move the needle,” she said. “It takes a collective responsibility and collaborative unity.”


    From New York, Williams said she followed Superintendent Kelvin Adams’ work in St. Louis and found that it embodied this kind of collaborative needle-pushing.


    “It motivated me to visit St. Louis Public Schools and talk with leadership here in July [2011],” she said.


    On Aug. 15, 2011, she began serving the district.


    Taking the challenge

    Before Williams chose the path of education administration, she was a law librarian for the New York City Bar Association – with her sights on becoming a lawyer. As part of her work, she had a service project to provide tutoring in the community.

    “I became a substitute teacher for a day at an elementary school,” she said. “Absolutely horrible day.”


    As she was leaving with ripped stockings and looking a mess, the principal stopped her to have an exit conversation about her experience, she said.


    She decided to be completely candid.


    “I told him about the horrible conditions in the classroom,” she said. “Students with no textbooks. Teachers with no lesson plans. Fifth graders who couldn’t read.”


    “He asked me, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ I told him, ‘I’m never coming back.’”


    Then he asked her why she wouldn’t want to be part of the solution.


    “It was a challenge that I couldn’t refuse,” she said. “He was absolutely right.”


    Williams then launched into a career as a teacher at all levels, including teaching students who are not native English speakers. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in administrative planning and social policy with a concentration in the urban superintendent program.


    Leveling the playing field

    In every district she has served as an administrator, her focus has been the same – to make public education an equalizer. It should not matter what zip code students live in or whether students’ parents lack higher education, she said.


    “Public schools should level the playing field,” she said.


    “Public education has to be world-class for our children. We have a phenomenal team under the leadership of Dr. Kelvin Adams that works relentlessly. We are in schools and classrooms where this work matters. For me, that would be the most important part of who I am and what I believe strongly in. Every child deserves to achieve at high levels.”


    At the SLPS district, Williams’ full responsibility is on instruction and creating an effective learning environment for students. She and her staff spend 75 to 80 percent of their time in the schools. They work with principals to take away any challenges that would deter their attention from the classrooms. They mentor and troubleshoot with teachers, as well as shadow exceptional teachers to learn from their secrets.   


    “We have to know what good instruction looks like and we need to know how do deliver it,” she said. “We all have the same lens. We are there to support their work, and it’s not good enough to have islands of excellence.”


    What Williams loves most about her SLPS position is that she gets to be laser-focused on her passion, which is instruction and making sure principals, teachers, parents and community partners feel supported in their efforts to advance student achievement. Adams’ leadership allows her staff to be successful in this work, she said.